On August 19, just nine days after the U.S. central bank surprised financial markets by deciding to buy more bonds to support a flagging economy, former Fed governor Larry Meyer sent a note to clients of his consulting firm with a breakdown of the policy-setting meeting.
The minutes from that same gathering of the powerful Federal Open Market Committee, or FOMC, are made available to the public — but only after a three-week lag. So Meyer’s clients were provided with a glimpse into what the Fed was thinking well ahead of other investors.
His note cited the views of “most members” and “many members” as he detailed increasingly sharp divisions among the officials who determine the nation’s monetary policy.
The inside scoop, which explained how rising mortgage prepayments had prompted renewed central bank action, was simply too detailed to have come from anywhere but the Fed.
A respected economist, Meyer charges clients around $75,000 for his product, which includes a popular forecasting service. He frequently shares his research with reporters, though he kept this note out of the public eye. Reuters obtained a copy from a market source. Meyer declined to comment for this story, as did the Federal Reserve.
By necessity, the Fed spends a considerable amount of time talking to investment managers, bank economists and market strategists. Doing so helps it gather intelligence about the market and the economy that is invaluable in informing the bank’s decisions on borrowing costs and lending programs.
But a Reuters investigation has found that the information flow sometimes goes both ways as Fed officials let their guard down with former colleagues and other close private sector contacts.
This selective dissemination of information gives big investors a competitive edge in the market. In the past, Fed officials themselves have privately expressed discomfort about the cozy ties between the central bank and consultants to big investors, though their concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears.
No one is accusing Meyer and his firm, Macroeconomic Advisers — or any other purveyors of Fed insights for that matter — of wrongdoing. They are not prohibited from sharing such information with their hedge fund and money manager clients.
But critics question whether it is proper for Fed officials to parcel out details that have the potential to move markets around the world, especially with the government’s involvement in the economy being so pronounced.
“It’s certainly not what Fed officials should be doing,” said Alice Rivlin, a former Fed governor and now a fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank. “The rules when I was there were you don’t talk to anybody about anything that could be used for commercial purposes.”
In an effort to counter concerns about close ties between business and government, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an “ethics pledge” that forbids appointees of his administration from contacting the agencies they worked under for at least two years after leaving.
But such measures are tough to enforce. And in the case of the Fed’s Washington-based board, governors are allowed to transition directly into a banking sector job immediately after they leave the central bank, though they must first serve out a rather lengthy 14-year term, which many do not.